In “Drive,” director Nicolas Refn defies the mainstream formula for action movies by trading witty one-liners and 30-minute explosion sequences for a meaningful character struggle and a love story that doesn’t rely on a one-dimensional hot babe in a fast car.
The film’s unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) — referred to only as “him,” “the driver” or “kid” — is a Hollywood stunt man and car mechanic by day and a getaway driver by night. When he falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), the wife of a former gang member who is indebted to the mob, he and his auto shop employer, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), find themselves involved in organized crime as they try to repay the debt and protect Irene from the mob.
While the plot seems like it’s pulled from a corny ’80s flick, Refn uses gracefully radiant cinematography to tell the story of a man trying to protect the people he loves without an abundance of expositional dialogue. The shots are edited to show the tension between the characters by focusing on body language and the actors’ expressions. The film’s ability to convey meaning visually instead of relying on dialogue creates a more complete cinematic experience.
The film’s pacing is tight enough to allow the audience to relish the masterfully crafted shots without dragging on with unnecessary and convoluted imagery. Refn establishes a relationship between Irene and the driver with no more than two lines of dialogue in a scene that lasts two minutes. They express interest in dating by looking at each other for a long while, then the decision is made with the simple question, “Do you want to go on a drive sometime?”
Instead of the seemingly static and somewhat awkward scene one would expect from this choice, the exchange is more engaging without weighty dialogue and allows the audience to see the relationship rather than hear it. This is a welcome effect, as Hollywood relies on cute and witty banter too often to create romantic relationships.
Gosling does the mysterious driver justice with a profound performance. He’s able to convey his emotions effectively by tapping into subtle physical acting with the minimal dialogue provided in the script. The silent driver is contrasted by Cranston who portrays a meek, but chatty old man with bad luck. Refn uses Shannon to fill the dialogue void, making sure the film doesn’t fall too silent and become disengaging. Cranston’s noise contrasts the driver’s silent and mysterious demeanor, and balances film away from being solely a single-character study.
The film’s soundtrack has a fun, upbeat ’80s style, but isn’t overbearingly lighthearted, which complements sequences of the characters driving through the streets of Los Angeles. Pop tracks like “A Real Hero” by College may make the audience feel it’s driving through a neon-lit metropolis.
The combination of visual storytelling and unusual character development creates an immensely satisfying experience that’s more meaningful than the typical movie-theater drive-by.
“Drive” was directed by Nicolas Refn and written by Hossein Amini and James Sallis.
3 out of 4 stars